Today, at the Conservative Party Conference, home secretary Sajid Javid will announce his £200m “Youth endowment fund”to tackle the surge in violent crime. The announcement will come at the end of a gruelling summer, with homicide numbers already reaching 100 – a third of whom were young people between the ages of 16 to 24 years – in London alone.
Javid will reveal that the government’s new “public health” approach to youth violence will see it being treated as a “contagious disease” – meaning early identification, multiple-agencies working together and promoting deterrence and protective messages will be a critical part of the approach. Key agencies, such as police, schools, social workers, NHS and youth services, will be encouraged to cooperate and work together in a holistic way.
We should welcome the Home Secretary’s new public health approach to knife and gun crime among young people. But it’s important to note that the national government is not the first body in the country to adopt this strategy. The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan unveiled this strategy last month by setting up a Violence Reduction Unit, and it has been trialled, with success, in Scotland for the last several years, too.
But as always with government policies, the devil is in the detail. So here are seven questions we need to ask Sajid Javid to better understand what the government’s strategy will look like in practice:
1. Why is the government delaying action by undertaking a consultation on the legal duty to address crime like a disease?
There have already been a hundred homicides in London this year, a third of whom are young people, predominantly from ethnic minority backgrounds. The consultation process, which likely means that the health approach will not start this year, suggests that the Home Office has not determined what this new duty should consist of, how agencies should work together and what the purpose of this strategy is.
This would be shocking given that knife crime has been a particularly prominent feature for the last two years, and ONS figures in March 2018 showed an increase of 16 per cent in knife crime.
2. How is the Home Secretary confident that a model which appears to have worked in Scotland and Chicago will be equally successful here?
Violence doesn’t happen in a social vacuum: context matters. We know from research that high rates of crime and violence mostly affect deprived and disadvantaged areas, so it would be naïve to ignore the closure of 600 youth centres between 2012 to 2016 (resulting in the loss of 140,000 places for young people) and the abolition of Education Maintenance Allowances for 16-18 year olds in education or training.
3. Given the significant cuts in police officers since 2010, how will the home secretary ensure that public agencies achieve the right balance between suppression (punishment) and protection (deterrence) for young people?
Since 2010, there has been a decrease of 21,000 police officer numbers, including 5 per cent Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs). That means there are fewer police officers on the streets intervening early in domestic/peer conflicts, fewer community police officers sourcing local intelligence and building trusting relationships and less accessible police stations in local areas and parks, because they’ve been closed down.
4. How will the Home Secretary ensure that the public sector prioritises their duty of care or safeguarding of children and young people at risk of violence or crime?
This is perhaps the most important question of all. It will be a significant issue for the police given the overwhelming evidence of police viewing black people as suspects first before they perceive them as victims.
Stop and search data has shown that black people are six times more likely to be stopped and searched compared to their white counterparts and three times more likely to be arrested for the same crimes. These police practices have highlighted to the black community how the police have struggled with getting the balance right between protecting black communities and policing them.
5. Why is the Home Secretary focusing so much on gangs when we know that gang-related crime only accounts for 5 per cent of all serious knife-related injuries for under 25 year olds?
Not only will the focus on “gangs” overlook the threats, fears and anxieties which cause young people (both perpetrators and victims) to carry weapons in high crime neighbourhoods. It will also further stigmatise and alienate young black people who are wrongly perceived to be in gangs.
This is not a minor problem. The definition of “gangs” is highly problematic because it doesn’t have a legal definition, and it’s also highly racialised. Even MPs have raised concerns about BME people being funnelled into the criminal justice system through misplaced perceptions about gangs and black people.
In addition, the Metropolitan Police’s gang-mapping Matrix database has been criticised by Amnesty International and the UN Special Rapporteur on Racism for discriminating against BME young people. Over three-quarters of the people on the Met’s Gangs’ Matrix database are black and 87 per cent are from BME backgrounds.
6. What do the home secretary and the Department for Education intend to do about the high numbers of school exclusions, particularly in relation to BME, SEN and GRT children?
For years practitioners and police working with troubled children have reported that children attending Pupil Referral Units (PRUs) are identified quickly by criminals and groomed into County Lines crime, yet this has been ignored.
But while the increase of school exclusions since 2012 is a serious concern, the emphasis needs to be on how DfE and Ofsted can work with schools to reduce exclusions (including providing them with more funds and support), rather than on penalising schools who take on children with behavioural issues.
7. Will the government’s public health approach focus on helping young people growing up in deprived areas develop social cognitive skills?
Such skills address the role their identity plays in their life journeys, develop their critical thinking skills and develop their conflict resolution skills. The former president of the US, Barack Obama spent $200m on this programme alone.
Dr Zubaida Haque is deputy director of the race equality think tank, the Runnymede Trust. She tweets at @zubhaque.
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